Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eduardo Porter Overstates His Case

Eduardo Porter in “Liberal Biases, Too, May Block Climate Change” blasts those on “the left” who question the use of nuclear power to mitigate the discharge of carbon that contributes to global warming. His allegation and its premises require careful consideration.

Porter aims his case against those on the left who oppose or doubt the need to adopt nuclear power as the “the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gasses.” Porter quotes Netscape founder Marc Andreessen that “the left is turning anti-science” and has become “reactionary”, with Andreessen citing resistance to the use of genetically modified foods and the expression of doubts about the displacement of workers by technology as two examples a “reactionary” trend. Porter, by citing the quote (and in the remainder of the article) apparently shares this view. Porter cites survey results that 65% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science support nuclear power. He fails to reveal or discuss the grounds upon which the 65% supporting the use of nuclear energy or the 35% who oppose it base their decisions. Porter even notes—suggesting, I think, that we (liberals) should be shocked—that more Republicans support the use of nuclear power than Democrats.

While Porter remarks that climate change denial as espoused by Senator Cruz is “absurd,” he counter-balances Cruz’s absurdity by stating: “But Bernie Sanders’s argument that “toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit” might also be damaging.” Porter fails to follow-up on this quote by explaining how this concern isn’t legitimate. Instead, Porter moves into a discussion of “our scientific and technological taboos”, suggesting that Sanders statement is an example of yielding to such a taboo.
Porter’s argument turns toward issues like evolution and general relatively (Einstein’s theory) as examples of how beliefs and interests affect a person’s willingness to adopt a scientific proposition. No doubt that this is true, but it’s not equally true or consequential for every possible scientific theory or decision based on a theory. For instance, Christian fundamentalists question or deny the theory of evolution because it conflicts with a literal reading of the Bible. Porter compares this with those on the left “who said scientists either disagreed or were divided on the safety of storing nuclear waste”, suggesting that this, too, is a belief motivated by bias against science based on some other beliefs. Porter ignores the 35% of members surveyed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science referenced earlier who didn’t support building more nuclear plants—or are those scientists “the left” in that group who are subject to reactionary taboos?
In another balancing point, Porter notes that the right favors smaller government and free enterprise and are therefore motivated to deny climate change because doing so would require a modification of those ideological beliefs. Fair enough, but then look at the other side:
On the left, by contrast, people tend to mistrust corporations — especially big ones — as corrupt and destructive. These are the institutions bringing us both nuclear power and genetically modified agriculture.
Porter seems to suggest that we should be asking ourselves “why on earth would someone adopt such a foolish attitude about big corporations? What they told us about the safety of cigarette smoking and their concealment of global warming evidence was so honest, forthright, and helpful to all of us!”. (I leave other examples to your sound recollection.)

Porter concludes with this peroation:

Fixing it [what exactly?] won’t require just better science. Eliminating the roadblocks against taking substantive action against climate change may require somehow dissociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in, on both sides of the ideological divide.

For Porter it’s simple: just follow the scientific facts.

Now I should put my cards on the table.

I’m skeptical but not actively opposed the expanded use of nuclear power. As someone who’s been around for almost all of the nuclear age, including fallout from atomic testing, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, I have a profound concern about the harm that nuclear energy can unleash, as well as an appreciation of its potential benefits.

I understand that if we drastically reduce the use of carbons for fuel, we could suffer a reduction in the amount of energy available to us in our daily lives. Generally speaking, the greater the energy supply, the more complex the society, and a more complex society allows a better quality of life. Thus, I take a reduction in the energy available to society as a threat to our collective well-being if taken to an extreme. Of course, conservation, walking, and taking public transportation, for instance, are examples of reducing demands on the energy grid that won’t hurt—and make actually improve—the quality of life. But if taken too far, we all will suffer. As for alternative energy sources, they remain a hope, not a reality. Thus, we spurn any source of energy at our peril.

But the critique of Porter’s argument must go to a deeper level, addressing the conceptions of science, engineering, and risk assessment upon which Porter bases his argument.

Porter notes that science changes its opinions continually and sometimes drastically. Science and its practical application in engineering are human projects subject to human strengths and weaknesses. While science has continued to push back the barriers of ignorance and engineering has allowed the creation of increasingly sophisticated structures and systems, both still carry the curse of human fallibility. Science knows a lot and really smart scientists know that we are ignorant of a great deal more, both because of the inherent limitations of the human thinking and as a result of the biases that we all struggle with. As to creations that we build, we create amazing things, and we create catastrophic failures. Having seen what failings nuclear plants can suffer as a result of Nature’s unpredictability (Fukushima) or as a result of human flaws of design and operation (Three Mile Island and Chernobyl), caution should be our guide. While we can push back against the tide of ignorance and failure, we can never fully defeat it. Science and engineering are not monolithic gods to whom we should bow before in a new idolatry. Instead, they are human enterprises that must remain subject to an awareness of  our limitations. Hubris is the greatest enemy of science and engineering; it always has been, and I suspect this will remain so.

But to warn of hubris on the part of science and technology in believing that these enterprises can move beyond failure and ignorance is a meta-perspective. We need to address the particular problem of nuclear energy. As the advisability of using nuclear power, we should ask about the specific risks and benefits. Having spent more than three decades as a practicing lawyer—and because I believe that certain legal principles provide a wide-ranging and sensible set of guidelines—we should ask about issues of liability if problems with a nuclear plant develop (and not limit ourselves to fuel waste). What liability insurance coverage does a nuclear plant in the U.S. receive? What is required? How does an insurance carrier measure the risk? How is the likelihood of risk measured? How is the magnitude of damage measured? What standard of liability applies? Strict liability (liability regardless of fault, say because of an earthquake or tsunami) or ordinary negligence (a foreseeable risk that a reasonable person in like or similar circumstances could have avoided). Are there any caps on damages? In other words, what is the largest loss that any carrier or guarantor (i.e., taxpayers) would be expected to pay out? What are the other available options and how do they compare on these and other relevant criteria, such as technical feasibility? And last but not least, what Black Swans lurk in the field? Or in Rumsfield language, what are the unknown unknowns? If the Deepwater catastrophe did x amount of harm, what can we expect from the next nuclear disaster?

There are some answers to these questions. The U.S. nuclear industry does have insurance coverage, although it's backed up by the government. But I question (and don’t presume to have a final answer) whether the appreciation of the risks has been appropriately addressed. Before I’d say yea or nay to further plants—and without any concern for Porter’s imagined taboos—I’d have to review and consider these risks and the available alternatives.  


The point of this exercise is not that Porter is wrong to argue in favor of using nuclear power to ameliorate the carbon loading that increases the likelihood of catastrophic climate change. This argument can and should be made. However, to argue that those who question the wisdom of using nuclear power are Luddites who refuse to worship the god of Science and Technology is a calumny. It presents a naïve view of science, and it fails to consider the demanding issues of weighing risks and benefits. We can and must do better. Mr. Porter should do better by his readers. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Why Study History?

Yesterday, my wife asked me, “Why do we study history?”. Her question arose from a conversation she’d had earlier in the day with her elementary school colleagues. I was both taken aback and intrigued. I was taken aback because from early elementary school days I’ve been intrigued by history for reasons that I cannot identify at so young an age. I majored in history (and political science) as an undergraduate, and I’ve remained a life-long student of the subject. I was intrigued with the question because it’s so easy to take for granted. Why do we study history?

My wife suggested that we needed history to provide us analogies which we can use to help make current decisions. This is not wrong, but its incomplete. In addition, history as a source of analogies, while useful, is also fraught with peril. Historical precedents, like “Pearl Harbor”, “Munich”, “Hitler”, and so on, mislead as well as instruct.

Before we dig deeper directly into an answer to the question of why we study history, let’s engage in a short thought experiment. Imagine that you wake up one day from sleep and you have no memory. Your senses all work just fine—you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. But you connect none of your sense experiences with any memories. Even tastes and smells—the most primal senses (just ask Proust)—bring no memories. The faces you see are all new. Of what your life consisted of before awakening that morning—either the day before or years before—you have no knowledge. You don’t have a name. (I’ll posit that you recall language, but the words which you use are new to you, you have no memory of having used them before.) Now, do you know who you are? Do you have a self? Do you have a soul? I suggest that you’re more like a zombie than a human being. Without memory, your sense of a personal history, you’re unknown to yourself and therefore soulless. As St. Augustine put it centuries ago, “the seat of the mind [anima] is in the memory”.

And so it is with our collective selves, our civilizations, nations, towns, churches, family, bridge club, and every form of human endeavor. Each entity is the sum of its history. To know the history of a person or group is what it means to know that person or group. Of course, such knowledge is always partial and limited, even as to ourselves knowing ourselves. (We do like to hide certain things from ourselves, don’t we?). We tend to think of history as the history of nations, politics, and battles, but history applies just as much to art and science as it does to politics or any other human endeavor. Science? Yes, for while we think of science as discovering timeless laws, in fact, the laws (perhaps better thought of as habits) of science arise in time. For instance, what were the laws of biology or chemistry at the first instant of the Big Bang? Or the laws of physics? Not only does our knowledge of science have a history, but those laws themselves developed over time as a part of the evolutionary history of the universe.

The historian John Lukacs sums up this attitude:

The history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought. That “we live forward but we can only think backword” is true not only of the present (which is always a fleeting illusion) but of our entire view of the future: for even when we think of the future we do this by remembering.

Lukacs, The End of an Age, 53.

Lukacs draws upon C.S. Lewis to further his theme that all knowledge is a matter of memory—of history in its many different guises:

The past in our minds is memory. Human beings cannot create, or even imagine, anything that is entirely new. (The Greek word for “truth, aletheia, also means “not forgetting”.) “There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. No one can imagine an entirely new color; or an entirely new animal; or even a third sex. At best (or worst) one can imagine a new combination of already existing—that is, known to us—colors, or monsters, or sexes.”
           
           Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 52.

How does this relate to education? In education, we tend to segregate history as a separate course among all of the others. We think of science and math as dependent solely on only the most up-to-date information. But even in the sciences and in math we delude ourselves if we believe that the current practice of a discipline can ignore its own history. We can afford this attitude because we can make the history implicit in teaching these fields by concentrating on current states of knowledge. But experts in a field are conversant with the history of the field, whether concentrated in the near-past (e.g., the latest developments in quantum mechanics) or the distant past (e.g., the world of Newtonian physics). As the Lukacs quote above suggests, all knowledge comes from the past, whether far or near.

For teachers, this means that in addition to the traditional segregation of history into a separate course about government, politics, and wars, history can enlighten the entire curriculum. The great American philosopher, psychologist, and teacher, William James, writes:

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught by reference to the successive achievement of the geniuses to whom these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature means grammar, art a catalog, history as a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.
           
           James, Memories and Studies, 312-313, quoted in Lukacs, At the End of an Age,              53.

(By the way, the late Neil Postman, media ecologist, and educator makes a very similar point in this book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999)).

Of course, I’ve only identified a few key thoughts that have bounced around in my head since my wife raised this topic with me. On careful examination, we’ll find that the question—like most crucial questions—defies a single, definitive answer. Such questions invite a conversation, with many voices, many perspectives, occurring over time. In other words, this is just one more contribution to the history of attempting to answer the question: Why do we study history?



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

About Romania: A Review of In Europe's Shadow by Robert D. Kaplan

Kaplan's latest comes at just the right time
When my wife accepted a position to teach in Bucharest, Romania, I went online to look for books on Romania, and at the top of the list I found Robert D. Kaplan's In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (2016). I hadn't known about it, but I certainly knew of Kaplan. I'd read his The Coming Anarchy (2000) and Warrior Politics (2001) and thought very highly of them both. I'd also read parts of The Ends of the Earth (2001) and Monsoon (2010). What a wonderful discovery! I dove in, and part way through I recommended it to my wife as we were running errands on our e-bike around Suzhou.

"Do you know this guy?", she asked.  
"Yes, I've read his stuff. He's good. He's also written books about the Indian Ocean and India, and about China, Vietnam, and the South China Sea."  
"Is he following us?"  
"I don't know!" 

In checking the publication dates of Monsoon (2010)) and Asia's Cauldron (March 2014), I determined that we were following him. Anyone acquainted with Kaplan won't be surprised at this. He must need a new 50-page passport every couple of years just based on the published accounts of his travels. (I wonder where he vacations?) No, we're just very lucky, especially with this book.

We're especially fortunate to have this book because Kaplan hasn't just passed through Romania or considered as just another piece on the geopolitical chessboard. He's been traveling to Romania since the 1970's, and he's seen it transformed from a gray, Stalinist backwater, racked by poverty and fear, into a what is now a vibrant society that holds membership in the EU and NATO. Romania seems to have found a good place for itself. As Kaplan describes it: "History surely had not ended here, but it had for the moment become more benign." Kindle Locations 3916-3917. Kaplan displays a genuine affection for this nation, and this spurs his interest in its history and its present, as well as prompting him multiple visits to contemplate its unique place in the busy world of Eastern Europe.

Kaplan first traveled to eastern Europe as a student in the early 1970s, and then he came a bit later to Romania as a young reporter. Trips back included a stint just after the Christmas Revolution in 1989 that toppled the hated Ceausescu regime and led to the summary trial and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. His most recent trip back was in 2014, when he observed the changes that have occurred in Romania after it has mostly-completed the transition to democracy and a market economy. This long history of personal involvement allows Kaplan to include not only his trademark travel writing, history, and geopolitical analysis, but it also serves as a bit of a memoir. For instance, his observations and assessment of the brutality and waste of the Ceaucescu regime prompted him to support the Iraq War, a judgment that he reports that he has come to regret. (A pointed reminder of the limits of historical analogy for decision-making.) As he notes, he didn't foresee the subsequent Sunni-Shia civil war that would break out after Saddam's demise.

Romania is a fascinating country, and Kaplan's draws on the distant past, the recent past, and the present to create his portrait of this country. Romania is a Westen outpost in eastern Europe. Romanian is a Romance language, closely related to Italian and Spanish (and, I'm thrilled to report, not very difficult to learn). Romania identifies with the West, yet the thread of culture passes via the Romanian Orthodox Church, anchored in the tradition of Byzantium and the cultural heritage of Orthodoxy. Also, the Ottoman, Russian, and Hapsburg empires have exerted influences on this land through which the Danube flows to reach the Black Sea. Kaplan explains that the intellectual class, including prominent figures that reached maturity in the 1930s, such as Mircea Eliade and E.M. Cioran, were attracted to the political Right, not the Left, unlike most western European intellectuals. Romania suffered the influence of the Iron Guard, a fascist movement that helped prompt Romania to ally with Hitler in the early period of war. Its authoritarian (but not truly fascist) leader, General Antonescu, both protected some Jews (Romanians) and helped ship others to the death camps. Romania committed over a half-million troops to Hitler's war against the Soviet Union. But before the end of the war, Antonescu led Romania to switch sides and aid the Soviets against the Nazi regime. All of this intrigue didn't do Antonescu much good. He was executed immediately after the war.

Through Kaplan's efforts in ancient, medieval, and modern history, we obtain a sense of the complexities of this culture and its political fortunes. His tour of the country, as well as neighboring Moldova (also Romanian speaking) and a foray into Hungary (now under a regime administering a "diet of low-calorie Putinism") gives us a further historical perspective. But also, in the tradition of great travel writing, Kaplan provides an intense sense of the present. (Among the several travel writers he mentions, Patrick Leigh Fermor gets a special mention, "that craftsman of irreducible godlike essences whose every sentence belongs in a time capsule". Kindle Locations 732-734). I've now begun Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water--just the prompt that I needed to uncork this champaign of travel writing.) From churches and monasteries to castles and homes, we get an engrossing sense of these places and the people who inhabit them. When my wife and I travel in Romania, we'll consult my Kaplan as much as our Lonely Planet.

In all, the publication date of this work (February 9, 2016) could not have been better timed or more welcome. Kaplan's complex layering of history, personal observation, and geopolitical analysis creates the perfect primer for anyone wanting to explore this fascinating nation and its environs. Or it's a treat for anyone who simply wants to enjoy the work of a master of observation and analysis. As Kaplan writes of Fermor, so I would of Kaplan: "to call him a mere travel writer is to diminish him." Id. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Principles of Art by R. G. Collingwood

"Art is the community's medicine for the corruption of consciousness"
I decided to read R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art (1938) to move toward rounding out my reading of Collingwood, having recently completed his Autobiography and his The New Leviathan (reviews forthcoming on both). I started The Principles of Art thinking I might learn about beauty in music, painting, or literature and some such. Having read a good deal of Collingwood by now, I should have known better. 



Collingwood is not a systems thinker in the way of many great philosophers, such as Plato, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, to name but a few in the history of philosophy who have constructed philosophic edifices with a room for every major issue. No, Collingwood isn't a system builder, but his is a systematic thinker. When he approaches a topic, be it history (The Idea of History) or civic life (The New Leviathan) or art, he lays his foundations very deep, sufficient to support the heavy weight of argument that he places upon those foundations. For instance, in The Principles of Art, he considers the history of analyzing sensation (Hobbes to Kant) and the innate expressiveness possessed by every human being and how that innate expressiveness prompts the unique human capacity for language. 

In the first part of the book, Collingwood distinguishes art from craft, and he discusses the creations that we often refer to as art but that he excludes from the domain of art, such as amusement and magic. "Magic"? Yes, magic. But here we learn from Collingwood the archeologist and folklorist that magic isn't for the manipulation of creation by some mystical force (although some few may have believed this), but he describes it as an enactment of rituals to arouse certain emotional responses from those performing or observing the rituals. Magic uses a representation of reality to arouse emotions important for various undertakings. Collingwood's argument is an intriguing and persuasive understanding of what we would otherwise consider irrational and useless behavior. 

Collingwood's explication of magic is but one of the distinctions and definitions that Collingwood makes in the first section of the book. Early on we're introduced to the carefully drawn distinctions that he makes with his lucid prose. Indeed, I'd like to quiz Collingwood about his writing: Is it art? Or is it a craft? Is all rhetoric a craft driven by the end of exhortation? In any event, he writes engagingly (except when he drops in obscure Latin phrases), and his use of everyday examples and metaphors makes his prose not only readable but entertaining. 

But while the first part of the book is intriguing, it's only a prelude to deep dive found in Part II. In the second part of the book, he delves into issues of sensation, emotions, imagination, experience, attention, consciousness, thought, intellect--and then the foundations of language! He also discusses what he describes as "the corruption of consciousness" (shades of Aristotle, Sartre (who published later), and C. Terry Warner here). But we can follow Collingwood through this palace of complex terms because he constructs his arguments brick-by-brick on top of his deep foundations. He thereby creates a substantial work of . . . well, art, even if he would disagree with my use of the term. As readers of his work on history might not be surprised to learn, he concludes that art is found in the mind of the artist who seeks to express (not just arouse) emotions. All art--and not just literature--is an expression of emotions that uses a form of expression, a language, if you will. he argues that language grows out of expression and that art is a language of expression (whether words, music, painting, etc.). His contention strikes me as brilliant and insightful. 

In the third part of the book, Collingwood ties up some loose ends. He refers only rarely to actual works of art, although he does spend some time discussing and praising T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" as an exemplary work from the time Collingwood was beginning his career as an academic philosopher. 

I could go on at some length about this book, as I've only given the briefest tour of Collingwood's creation that I think merits careful study. A student of philosophy tells me that Collingwood is considered outdated in his analysis of these issues. Perhaps so. I'm not in a position to judge because I'm not widely read in this field. But even if so, I contend that Collingwood has laid down too many fundamental and fortified arguments to ignore. If there are more persuasive thinkers writing about these issues, I want to read them. In the meantime, I'll appreciate and benefit from this Collingwood masterpiece. 


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

(The ALL NEW) Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Be honest: didn't you just picture an elephant?
The ALL-NEW Don't Think of an Elephant:  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (2014) is a timely read. Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is also a committed political progressive. In this book, he applies his extensive learning in linguistics and in cognitive science to analyze how we think how this knowledge can help progressives better convince voters of their cause. Even for those not interested in politics, the book is instructive because it provides a quick, accessible overview of Lakoff’s work. In essence, Lakoff argues that we think through metaphors, that all of our thinking arises from our body and its nervous system. That is, we're embodied beings whose thinking is conditioned by our body and our physical surroundings. For learning and arguing, this means that we think in schemas (outlines, models, patterns), metaphors, and narratives.

In politics, Lakoff argues that progressives and conservatives have different fundamental models (or metaphors) by which they view the world. Lakoff describes this as the difference between a “strict father” family metaphor and a “nurturant family” metaphor. (I'll discuss the use of this governing dichotomy later in the review). From these fundamentally different worldviews flow political positions that allow seemingly diverse issues to coalesce around central worldviews. For instance, how anti-abortion attitudes are related to pro-gun attitudes in the conservative understanding of the world.

In Lakoff’s view, conservatives, following the strict father metaphor, adhere to very defined in strict hierarchies. As he writes:

Here is the hierarchy: God above man; man above nature; adults above children; Western culture above non-Western culture; our country above other countries. These are general conservative values. But the hierarchy goes on, and it explains the oppressive views of more radical conservatives: men above women, Christians above non-Christians, whites above nonwhites, straights above gays.Kindle Edition 357.  

In the nurturant parent model, progressives are much more empathic and more egalitarian. (Lakoff doesn’t address how progressives deal with hierarchies, as some extreme forms of progressivism tend toward the anarchic and radical egalitarianism.) As to those who might be considered “moderate” or  “middle-of-the-road" in their political opinions,  Lakoff argues that there is no third between his two defining models (or metaphors—Lakoff is unclear about which is the appropriate term to describe this dichotomy). Thus, those in the middle, whom he dubs “biconceptual”, are just that: they entertain both models at once, giving voice to one or the other at various times or regarding various topics. With repetition, however, one voice will often grow stronger than the other. Thus, one might be using a nurturant family metaphor at home yet adhere to the strict father metaphor in the workplace or in forming some political opinions.

In the more functional area political communication, Lakoff argues that progressives have been outfoxed by conservatives. Lakoff argues that conservatives have been driving home their message for decades through the generous funding of institutes, think tanks, and the media that allow them to define – or in Lakoff’s technical term “frame” – the public debate. Thus, we think of (or frame) “tax relief" as if taxes were simply a burden rather than the dues one pays for living in our civilized society. Lakoff also argues that conservatives appeal to values. Progressives keep thinking that facts and policies are what drive voters’ decisions, but Lakoff says that the progressives infatuation with facts does little to persuade. Progressives, he argues, need to promote their values. Lakoff describes these values as rooted in empathy:

Progressive/liberal morality begins with empathy, the ability to understand others and feel what they feel. That is presupposed in responsibility—responsibility for oneself, for protection, for the care of those who need care, and for the community. Kindle 1856.

Lakoff makes a strong argument that progressives need to increase their voice, address values, and refused to enter into the frames established by conservatives. Conservative masterminds, like Frank Luntz, have created a linguistic environment that puts progressives at a disadvantage from the beginning. Thus, the title of Lakoff book and one of the primary takeaways from it: when you tell someone not to think of an elephant, the first thing they will do is think of an elephant! Accordingly, if you frame an issue as one of, for instance, “tax relief", you’re immediately framing taxes as a burden instead of a cost of membership a vital community organization. After all, our tax dollars allow our governments to provide roads, airports, schools, communications systems, scientific research, law enforcement, national defense and so on. Here, Lakoff is certainly correct. The millions of dollars that the Mellon, Scaife, and Koch families have poured into universities, think tanks, and the media have significantly changed the terms of the national debate. Progressives need to get with it and start broadcasting their message in frames that work from their point of view.

On the issue of political communication and messaging, Lakoff makes a persuasive argument. The book intrigues me, and it frustrates me just a little bit on the following particulars.

  1. Lakoff uses the strict father versus nurturant family model (or metaphor) as definitive. I'd read some of Lakoff years ago and was put off by this metaphor, but now I want to explore it further. If this dichotomy is “only” a metaphor, it does provide a great deal of explanatory value. But Lakoff seems to be using this distinction as more than a metaphor, and this raises questions. For instance, is the strict father family model a cause or correlation to a conservative outlook? If it is causal, how does one escape it? For instance, I was born in the 1950s into what I would consider a traditional “father knows best" family. I would describe my father is somewhat strict but not abusive and not authoritarian. My parents had fairly traditional gender roles for that time.  I would describe my upbringing as fairly typical for a small-town, white, kid with college-educated parents. Some friends I grew up with had blue collar parents with less education, and an even more traditional strict father family upbringing, and yet me and some of these others are very much political progressives today. I emigrated from a young Republican to a Democrat (in Lakoff’s terms, a progressive). How did this happen? How did my fundamental metaphor change from that of a strict father family to a nurturant family metaphor? How did I and my wife come to practice a nurturant family model in raises our children? How does this change take place? How does this change in fundamental models relate to the larger cultural environment? Thus, while I think that Lakoff’s metaphor (if that's what it's limited to) is instructive and useful, it's thin on explanation. Lakoff’s model has to be compared to the conception of conservatism versus liberalism that Jon Haidt makes in his writings, or the more comprehensive theories of cultural and personal change found in Integral Theory, which adopts the work of Clare Graves and Don Beck in Spiral Dynamics and incorporates that model into the wider Integral Theory established by Ken Wilber. Perhaps because this is a book intended more of a handbook, Lakoff provides answers elsewhere. (He’s also the author of weighty and significant academic works.)
  2. Lakoff emphasizes that many of the phenomena he discusses are hard-wired in the brain. Again, I don't want to be too harsh because this is a book intended as a political handbook for progressives, not an academic tome, but much of what he says necessarily raise some of the most challenging and fundamental issues about the relation between the material world and consciousness. In Lakoff’s model, the mind arises out of the body (I’ve no problem with that contention), but it's unclear how a change of consciousness comes into this. His emphasis on neural circuitry shared by many of his colleagues in cognitive sciences provide some interesting insights and accounts, but I sometimes  think it is oversold and may have the effect of wedding us to perspectives that are not justified
  3.  Lakoff argues that there is no third position between the strict father family conception and the nurturant family conception. Those who are moderate or in the middle of the road politically he labels biconceptuals. These individuals hold both metaphors in their minds, with one or the other of the two dominant in particular situations. Lakoff’s scheme seems accurate in some sense, but it serves to beg the question. Is it simply the linguistic environment—more conservative or more progressive talk—that tilts the mind one way or the other?  Lakoff classifies conservatives according to different demographics and interests, and he does the same for progressives. His family metaphor doesn't explain those interests or how they are developed and refined within individual contexts or larger political classifications. As someone who migrated from being a young Republican to Democrat, this issue intrigues me. And there are some conservatives (more and more rare) with whom I have some sympathy. Lakoff seems a little too eager to suggest that any conservative position is simply a failure to migrate all the way into one dominant metaphor. For instance, the issue of trade. Trade is a political issue about which I’m conflicted. The basic economics of trade suggest that overall, society can become better off with trade. However, I know that when trade is liberalized and expanded, there are going to be winners and losers. American manufacturing jobs have migrated overseas, and the cost of this migration to many individuals and communities has been devastating. My position on the trade, thus, has shifted from a free trade position to one of very skeptical of further trade agreements that could ship jobs overseas. I don't think I arrived at this the because my family metaphor flipped at some particular moment, but because of my increasing awareness of the evidence that the immediate and local costs of trade begin to outweigh the benefits to the nation as a whole and to posterity. In other words, what may be a progressive position may not be the best view when viewed from a different perspective. In other words, there a lot of facts and nuances and taking a position on something like trade that does family metaphor doesn't account for. It seems that Lakoff with the family model dichotomy creates a Manichean worldview that doesn’t rest comfortably with me. There are more nuanced theories with better explanatory power out there, perhaps some that provide a scale instead of a such a stark dichotomy.
  4. Lakoff argues that voters vote values and not interests. True, mostly, but I think that this oversimplifies the topic. Of course, we have the “what’s the matter with Kansas” phenomena to account for, but voters’ motives are complex, an amalgamation of values, beliefs, perceptions, and downright ignorance or faulty logic. So, values, yes, but interests and beliefs (quite dependent on values), too, play more a role greater than what Lakoff suggests.


As the reader can discern from the length of my review, Lakoff’s book has prompted me to think a great deal. By my measure, that always suggests that book was worthwhile. Progressives shouldn’t ignore Lakoff’s  practical political suggestions. Meanwhile, I'll be off trying to explore Lakoff’s understanding of biconceptuals and the role of the family metaphor more closely. But whether further exploration of these issues brings me to a closer agreement with Lakoff or to a greater disagreement with him, Lakoff has performed a valuable service by his work on these crucial and fascinating topics.

For a good introduction introductory summary of Lakoff work and the one that led me to read this book (and that is quite timely in light the politics we’re experiencing right now, read this by Lakoff from Evonomics online magazine (an excellent resource itself).


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Senator Grassley Replies re Supreme Court Nomination & My Open Response

March 3, 2016
Dear Mr. Greenleaf:

Thank you for taking the time to contact me.  As your Senator, it is important for me to hear from you.
I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the loss of Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as efforts to fill his seat on the Supreme Court of the United States.  Iowans, as well as all Americans, are currently engaged in a serious discussion on this topic.
As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I take very seriously the advice of my predecessors, on the appropriateness for the Senate to withhold consent on any nominee to the Supreme Court, should the President not follow the example of his predecessors, such as President Lincoln, who abstained from making a nomination during a presidential election year until after the people voted.  In 1992, while serving as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, then-Senator Joe Biden spoke on the Senate floor about the proper actions of the Senate in this very circumstance.  My friend and colleague stated "Senate consideration of a nominee under these circumstances is not fair to the president, to the nominee, or to the Senate itself...Where the nation should be treated to a consideration of constitutional philosophy, all it will get in such circumstances is partisan bickering and political posturing from both parties and from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."
I share the concerns of my friend Vice President Biden.  We know that a nominee will not ultimately get confirmed, and because election season is well underway, no matter the qualifications of any potential nominee, the hyper-political environment would cause harm to the court, to the nominee, and to the nation.
It is important to remember that Congress is a coequal branch of government, and our founders sought to protect each branch of government from undue influence from either of the other two.  In response to the current Administration's continuing efforts to use the Judicial branch in order to bypass Congress and undermine the process of representative government, the people made their voices heard in 2014 by revoking the previous majority in the Senate, and increasing the majority ranks in the House of Representatives.
The Senate's decision to express its constitutional right to withhold consent from a nominee until after the next President is sworn in will allow the nominee to receive fair consideration, as opposed to attempts from each party to promote its electoral agenda.
On March 1st, I met with President Obama at the White House to reiterate the Senate's position on this issue.  We also took the opportunity to discuss many issues of mutual interest, such as the opioid epidemic that is devastating our country, criminal justice reform, and issues facing Puerto Rico.
I want to sincerely thank you again for sharing your views with me.  I understand that many Americans, especially Iowans, feel passionately about this issue.  Although there may be disagreements between people of good will, it is important for us to continue to have a respectful discussion.  Please keep in touch.

Sincerely,

Chuck Grassley

An Open Letter in Reply 

8 March 2016

Dear Senator Grassley, 

Thank you for your timely response. I certainly agree that we should engage in a respectful discussion, but not, of course, at the expense of fully expressing our opinions on this vital subject. 

In your letter, you referred to a statement on a nomination made by Vice-President Biden (then Senator Biden). The Vice-President addressed your reference in an article just before you wrote your letter to me. His statement puts a different light on the contentions that you make in your letter.  But regardless of whether he is back-tracking (as some will no doubt allege), the point is moot to me. The Senate should perform its duties now regardless of what Senator Biden, Senator Obama, or what any other senator has done in the past when that position is wrong and based solely on party politics. When senators in the past have sought to block full and fair consideration of a nominee, they acted wrongly. My good, Iowa Republican parents taught me that just because someone else did something wrong, I didn't get the right to do so, too. I apply the same principle to you. (I don't know the specifics of Lincoln's decision, but I do want to remind you that we were in the midst of the Civil War and therefore not all of his precedents bear repeating.)

Your argument that the nomination will create partisan electoral posturing holds no water. The partisanship exists because of a long-term strategy followed Congressional Republicans. I know that you're up for election this year, so I can understand that any decision you make--even to consider a nominee--would prove unpopular with some voters, but after 40 years in Congress, you should be willing to perform your duties even in an election year. In fact, given your seniority, you should serve as the one who says "no"  to the extreme partisanship that you anticipate any nomination would entail. I'm certain that you'll agree that the extreme partisanship we see in Congress today is much greater than what you experienced in the first 25 years of your congressional tenure. Isn't it time for someone to step up and work to dial down the extremism that's rampant in your party? 

I still hope that you will change your mind, as I know I'm not the only Iowan who's disappointed with your intransigence on this matter. 

Thank you for your consideration, 

Steve Greenleaf

                   

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Three Roosevelts by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

Three who affected each other & American political life

The French have a saying, "Plus les choses changent plus elles retent les memes", which translates as "the more things change, the more they stay the same." That little ditty kept running through my mind as I read The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America (2000) by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. It's a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, each of these individuals has commanded numerous and extensive biographies, including a two-volume biography of FDR by Burns first published in 1956. However, the conceit of this volume that emphasizes the relationships of the three and how they affected one another is worthwhile because these three handed a political tradition down from one to the other. 

Of course, Theodore is the root of the Roosevelt political dynasty in the 20th century. TR fought hard for progressive reforms and continued his efforts even as he rejected and, in turn, was rejected by the Old Guard of the Republican Party that fought to protect established business interests. TR ended up going down in flames in 1912 when he ran as the Bull Moose candidate against the incumbent Taft (his hand-picked successor when TR chose not to run again in 1908) and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

But as Theodore was dominating the national stage, Franklin was launching his political career as a Democrat (despite his admiration for his cousin Theodore). Franklin's story is at the heart of the book because he was involved in the national stage from 1920 to his death in 1945. With his election near the beginning of the Great Depression, he came to dominate American politics. But when I write “dominate,” perhaps that’s the wrong word. It would be more accurate to say that he became the focus of American politics. Even at the height of his popularity and power, FDR was always aware that the winds of political fortune can shift abruptly. FDR worked with Democrat majorities in Congress, but because the Democratic Party was an amalgam of various interests, a significant portion of which included racist southern Democrats, FDR always tread very carefully. And this is where I see how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I was repeatedly struck when reading about FDR's successes and travails how President Obama has faced many of the same problems. FDR, like Obama, was attacked vehemently from the right, and FDR turned to a pugilistic frame of mind worthy of TR in taking on the" plutocrats". Obama, of course, has always tended towards reconciliation rather than confrontation, but there is no question that Obama would always be checked by Wall Street and its influence in Congress. But the wealthy business class was not the only group who opposed FDR. From a different political direction came radicals like Father Coughlin, the populist and anti-Semite, and Huey Long, the populist senator from Louisiana. Shades of Donald Trump, anyone? And, of course, both presidents suffered criticism from the Left for not doing enough.

The story of FDR is complex. It deals with the Great Depression, Congress, and changes in the domestic American political scene, and then it switches direction with the advent of World War II and FDR's goal of seeking to frame a new world order out of the ashes. Of course, FDR failed in this with his untimely death in April 1945, but Eleanor continued to carry the torch.

Of the three, I learned the most about Eleanor, who grew from a shy, withdrawn girl into a forceful presence of her own. Even after the death of FDR, Eleanor continued to advocate for causes in which she believed. She remained an activist until her death in 1962. In fact, after FDR's death, she seemed to grow in stature, rising to the occasion. Her marriage to FDR was a complex and baffling relationship, especially given FDR's infidelity and the distinct change in their intimate relationship that occurred around 1920 (which is also about the time that Franklin was struck with his life-altering polio). Yet for all their heartache, the two had a bond of respect that overcame their deep alienation to allow Eleanor to have a mind and voice of her own that grew in political significance throughout her lifetime. Any other power couples come to mind?

For anyone new to the Roosevelt saga that arranges for almost a century between the birth of TR and the death of Eleanor, this is an excellent book to start exploring. By combining the three lives, the authors not only provide a snapshot of each of the individuals, but they emphasize how all three affected one another and therefore the whole of American political life. Done with an easy and flowing narrative, it's a great place to get a sense of how American politics has changed and how it hasn't. I suspect if Barack Obama would read this book after the end of his presidency, he’d have many occasions to smile in recognition.